The South Shore Line's operator on Friday took a major step toward applying for federal aid to build a $571 million extension by voting unanimously to hire AECOM, of Los Angeles, to develop a draft environmental impact study.
Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District trustees approved going forward with the study just as towns and cities are pledging long-term funding for the 8-mile extension to Dyer.
"The process thus far has produced a lot of questions, probably more questions than answers," said NICTD Trustee and Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay. "So this study will provide a lot of the answers."
Repay said the title "environmental impact study" is a misnomer, as the report will examine all aspects of the project, including its financing.
The draft environmental impact study will eventually be part of an application to proceed submitted to the Federal Transit Administration under its New Starts program, which can pay for 50 percent of the project's cost.
The study will take up to 18 months and could cost up to $3 million. In February, the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority voted to contribute $1 million to the study's cost.
AECOM was hired in August 2010 to oversee Gary/Chicago International Airport's $166 million expansion project. That project is ongoing, having missed a deadline last year.
Before the vote, Trustee Sylvia Graham, a Porter County councilwoman, said she was voting in favor "with the assurance there will be no tax on other counties to pay for this."
After the meeting, Graham said her support and that of other NICTD members for the extension is tied to pledges that the existing South Shore line is also in for significant improvements. The trustees received briefings Friday on the Michigan City realignment, a $180 million project, and the South Bend Regional Airport reroute, a $15 million project.
Ridership on the South Shore Line took a beating in January and February from the severe winter weather, much the same as other region businesses such as casinos, NICTD Planning and Marketing Director John Parsons told trustees.
Ridership was down 6.5 percent through the end of February as compared to the year before, with off-peak and weekend trains suffering the largest declines.
The NICTD board of trustees also approved a number of contracts. JCI Bridge Group, of LaPorte, won the $1,192,366 contract to replace a South Shore bridge over Lake Park Avenue in Hudson. Also approved was the expenditure of $320,610 for two aerial bucket trucks from Truck City of Gary.
A number of material purchases also were approved, including 10 miles of overhead wire for $309,520 from Wesco Distribution, of Hammond; a mile of welded rail segments from L.B. Foster Co., Pittsburgh, for $157,265; rubber railseals from Polycorp Elora, of Ontario, Canada, for a total of $228,686; and $879,500 in propulsion system parts from Toshiba of America, Houston.